Our Historic Faith and Contemporary Conflict Part 1

Our Historic Faith and Contemporary Conflict (Part 1)

IT IS clear, beyond all question, that the early church was sure that our redemption is based on a historical fact an act that took place, once for all, at a definite time in the history of the world. Today again, especially in view of certain developments in modern theological thinking, it should be emphasized that the Christian religion, both in its background and in its development, is definitely historical. . .

-A staff physician at Kwahu Hospital, Ghana, West Africa.

The Historical Certainty

IT IS clear, beyond all question, that the early church was sure that our redemption is based on a historical fact an act that took place, once for all, at a definite time in the history of the world. Today again, especially in view of certain developments in modern theological thinking, it should be emphasized that the Christian religion, both in its background and in its development, is definitely historical. The historical backgrounds of man's creation, his fall, and the revelation to him of the plan of redemption are set out clearly in the authoritative Bible record.

The early church, in loyalty to the record, placed full emphasis on the historicity of our redemption in Jesus. "Christ died" that is fact; "Christ died for our sins" that is doctrine and the basis of the Christian gospel; "suffered under Pontius Pilate" that places the events of the crucifixion firmly in history. This emphasis by the church was a definite and wise stand against all possible heresies that might try to throw doubt upon the historical basis of the gospel.

The Changed Outlook

Of recent years, the Christian message has been confronted with new and rapid developments in contemporary culture developments that have produced a questioning of traditional religious views. We grant, of course, that no department of knowledge can maintain its isolation from scientific investigation, and we know that some convictions from the past have crumbled under the scrutiny of modern knowledge. The Christian gospel, however, has survived all investigations and is well able to survive amid contemporary religious conflicts.

The widespread spiritual malaise we see today probably stems from a number of causes. We might mention three: First, there is a general lack of affection for past tradition; second, there is an apathy or indifference concerning any world beyond this; and third, there is a general belief in the omnicompetence of the technological sciences to explain man and to serve his needs. The result of all this is cynicism and in difference among unbelievers, matched by doubt and apathy among churchgoers.

The Reaction of Modern Theology

Modern theologians have been fully aware of this changed out look, and some have felt doubtful and uneasy concerning the old positions. They have tried, therefore, in various ways to adapt religious concepts to the contemporary outlook. Evangelicals, of course, react by the reassertion of the theology of the Bible. Others, however, have sought for a contemporary philosophical medium for the gospel and think that they find it in the existential view of man. Still others follow more radical paths, asserting that in secularism lies the meaning of Christianity.

As we take a brief look at some of these modern teachings we quickly note that what is really at stake for Christianity, is the truth about God. Ellen G. White emphasizes this when she states:

It is the darkness of misapprehension of God that is enshrouding the world. Men are losing their knowledge of His character. It has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. 1

What, therefore, we should especially note is that in some of the modern theological adaptations, the picture of Cod is misinterpreted. It might be protested that modern theological teaching is a sincere attempt to salvage Christian ideals from the battleground of historical doubt. But we must emphasize that what is salvaged is not the Christian gospel. The vicarious sacrifice of Calvary and the means of grace either have no place or are misinterpreted in much of modern theology. What is the use of extolling Christian ideals, while the only means of attaining those ideals are nullified or evaded by philosophical errors?

The Truth in Love

In view of what we believe to be subversive elements in the teachings of certain modern theologies, it might be useful to note some points where these teachings deviate from the true gospel. We take this step, not with a negative or polemic purpose, but with a sincere desire to help focus some of the great issues that are at stake for Christians. Furthermore, we do not impugn the sincerity of anyone, for only Cod, who can assess motive, is able to judge impartially. But saying this does not absolve us from our duty to guard ourselves, our students, and the flocks committed to our care, against the dangers of modern heresy.

We recognize that some modern theories are the product of deep and honest thought, of a genuine search for truth, and are written with a sincere desire to contribute to an understanding of God and of man's relationship to Him. We are reminded, though, of the warning of the apostle Paul that "every man take heed how he buildeth" (1 Cor. 3:10). It could be that some of these modern teachers who perhaps have been building unwisely might at last be saved, "yet so as by fire" (verse 15). We know that in the final work of the gospel "the children of God are to manifest His glory" His character and as they "reveal what the grace of God has done for them" 2 men will be charmed, prejudice abated. Even some of the wise of this world might come to realize the poverty of their own philosophies, and realizing that they had been trying to quench their own and others' thirst at "broken cisterns," they might turn for real refreshing to drink at "the fountain of living waters" (Jer. 2:13).

Most Ministry readers are acquainted with or have heard of Harvey Cox's book The Secular City, which we might cite as presenting the idea of secular Christianity. One of the problems facing Christian evangelism today is an almost impenetrable bulwark of secular-mindedness. There still exists, of course, a certain pattern of ethical tradition derived from an earlier Christendom, but this is gradually being eroded by the ethos of secularism. Cox suggests that in order to hear God speaking through the human relationships and duties of secular life, man should discard an outworn religious culture with its misleading metaphysics and irrelevant other-worldliness. Cox presents with enthusiasm the idea that the "secular city" is the climax of God's plan in history.

We might well ask whether technological man, as Cox pictures him and as he is seen today, is really a criterion of God's plan for man. We note, too, that Cox's thesis seems to be influenced by a kind of Pelagianism. Cox is not concerned with prayer or the seeking of God's grace; his encouragement to Christian action simply means the activism that Christians have perhaps known, from their own earlier experience, to be spiritually starving. Thus we see that the issue here is God's grace, for the theory of Cox definitely teaches the self-sufficiency of modern technological man. By this teaching, the seeker after peace is thrown back to the "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:9). Christianity alone, with its true doctrine of God, offers through the plan of redemption an ensured future for man. Cox's theory neglects all this.

The Demise of Theism

There are several theories in modern theology that postulate either the demise of theism or God's self-destruction in history. We note two:

A. Christ Without Theism. Paul Van Buren in his Secular Meaning of the Gospel proposes a theory that suggests that although theism and religion are not admissible in our modern scientific world, Christ still has importance for the human race. But Christ's value for mankind today, teaches Van Buren, is to be found, not in the theistic and religious norms that Jesus adopted as a man of His time, but in the perfect freedom of Jesus. Van Buren says that Jesus "died as a result of the threat that such a free man poses for insecure and bound men." 3 After the resurrection the disciples are said to have had "an experience of which Jesus was the sense-content. . . . From that moment, the disciples began to possess some thing of the freedom of Jesus. His freedom began to be 'contagious.' "

This theory of Van Buren cannot be sustained by Scripture, because Jesus claimed to be the Christ, the anointed One who came to do God's will. His freedom is demonstrated by His obedience to the law and by His service to God. Van Buren ignores the fact that Jesus lived and taught in a historical context the faith and promises of the Old Testament. Vogel, in his comments on Van Buren's theory, writes, "Jesus was showing, through His freedom, that there is a source of life be yond the world, obedience to which makes one free in the world. His freedom is reference to a source beyond the world, to the Father." 4

B. The Self-destruction of Deity. Another theory is that God did actually exist, but that He died by an act of loving self-destruction. T. J. J. Altizer in his book The Gospel of Christian Atheism insists that the incarnation and Calvary meant nothing less than the dissolution of God Himself. Altizer says, "The problem that the theologian refuses to confront is the inevitable incompatability be tween the primordial Christian God and an incarnate or kenotic Christ. . . . Such a descent cannot be truly meaningful unless it is understood as a real movement of Cod himself, a movement which is final and irrevocable, but which continues to occur wherever there is history and life." 5

This theory reduces God as a transcendent being, and Jesus Himself is not considered to be the exalted Lord, but one who by death has passed "from a particular to a universal form, and continues to be present in a forward-moving and transfiguring Word." 6

There is, however, an accusation by Altizer that should be answered. He says that theologians have confined the self-giving of God to the incarnation, and thus have "isolated God's love from the primordial nature and existence of God himself." 7

This charge is obviously unscriptural and not sustained by Western orthodoxy. The apostle John shows that the self-giving love of Calvary reveals, not the abolition of deity, but the essence of deity in its eternity and perfection. Furthermore, both the apostle John and Augustine, also many Western theologians, have related the doctrine of the Trinity to the love revealed in the incarnation and the cross. Calvary, then, means, not the dissolution of deity, but the measure of that ceaseless self-giving love which is the glory of God in all eternity.

Ellen G. White makes this clear in the following statement concerning God the Father: "He is glorified [note that this is not limitation or dissolution] by the incarnation, the life, death, and mediation of His Son." 8 (Readers will be acquainted with other relevant statements from the Spirit of Prophecy.) The sovereignty of God is absolute divine omnipotence and divine love are of one; and in relation to the problem of evil, and its complete and final destruction, the sovereign God of love is involved, identified, and triumphant.

Demythologizing and Existentialism

A theory, popularized by Rudolph Bultmann, is that the whole message of Christianity has to be presented in categories that modern man can understand. It is suggested that this necessitates the removal of what are considered to be mythological elements in the New Testament, in order to find the real essence of the Christian message. In Bult mann, demythologizing seems to be the general corrective and existential theology the universal answer; and so he rearranges the whole story of redemption in existential categories. (Existentialism may be understood as a philosophy that places reality within man's self-understanding, so that propositions about God or about any ontological concept have no validity except as details of man's encounters. It would be useful for readers to refresh their knowledge of this philosophy by reading again the helpful articles on existentialism in The Ministry of December, 1970.)

For Bultmann, therefore, the death of Jesus is known only as the believer's dying with Christ in the hearing of faith; and the resurrection is not an event attested by evidence, but a mythological way of stating the saving significance of the cross. According to Bultmann, all that the historian can really affirm is the Easter faith of the disciples. By translating the gospel into existentialist terms, Bultmann leaves no basis for ontological propositions about the status of Jesus in relation to God and the world. Furthermore, the scriptural records of the life and teaching of Jesus are treated rather skeptically. In his book Jesus and the Word Bultmann states, "I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist." 9

Bultmann's position is not convincing and does little justice to the emphasis of the New Testament writers upon the man Jesus. References to Jesus in the Epistles and the extended coverage in the Gospels of the deeds and sayings of Jesus clearly relate to what He claimed to be His lifework. A definite portrait of a person emerges from the records, and it was that person who justified the Christology of the early church. Bultmann suggests that an existentialist concept can convey the whole meaning of Christianity, but this is obviously misleading, be cause the ontological element in the New Testament is absolutely basic for Christianity. The "being," the "isness," of deity set forth in the Old Testament is re-affimed in the New Testament, revealing that Jesus shares in it. He is the I AM, "the self-existent One." 10

(Next month: The relationship of the concepts of Paul Tillich to the teachings of historic Christianity.)




1. Christ's Object Lessons, p. 415.

2. Ibid., pp. 415, 416.

3. Page 134.

4. A. A. Vogel, The Next Christian Epoch, p. 37.

5. Page 43.

6. Ibid., p. 56.

7. Ibid., p. 67.

8. Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 364.

9. Page 14.

10. The Desire of Ages, p. 470.

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-A staff physician at Kwahu Hospital, Ghana, West Africa.

May 1973

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